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Bob and Laura Keeley on Lament Psalms and Children

Robert “Bob” Keeley teaches education at Calvin College. He and his wife, Laura Keeley, direct children’s ministries at Fourteenth Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. They write books, curriculum, and plays. Here they talk about making lament psalms accessible to children.

Why did you start writing about the Psalms for children?

Laura: We just finished an intergenerational grant project at our church that focused on the Psalms, vertical habits [relational words for worship], and visual arts. We noticed that most kids know Psalm 23, and maybe one or two others, but  just happy psalms. We want to give kids a more fully orbed picture of life with God, so they can know  psalms and know how to use them.

Bob: We think the Psalms are good for God’s people. And kids are part of God’s people.

Why are you including psalms of lament in your current writing project?

Laura. We give them the stories of the Bible, but they need also to learn how to access the emotions of the Bible. People are realizing the importance of emotions in making decisions. When you are feeling sad for a friend—or happy or thankful—how do you bring those feelings to God?

Bob: We know from Jean Piaget [a Swiss developmental psychologist] that middle schoolers can emote for other kids.

Laura: They can take on the emotions of others and be overwhelmed, drawn into the sadness of the death of a friend’s uncle, for example.. That age can be like emotions on overload…

Bob: …which pretty much defines middle school. We don’t want to create mini-psychological sessions,  just have them know that when life feels crappy, they have words to say to God.

Since most psalms don’t tell a story, how do you provide a way in for kids to understand them?

Laura: We talk of ages and stages in faith formation. We have to simplify the psalm, because young children can picture the metaphor but not always run with the idea it’s creating. They can get the repetition in a psalm, like “How long, Lord? How long, will…?” We can start walking kids through a psalm even if they can’t understand it all.

Bob: When I taught middle school math, students would say, “I don’t know how to do this.” I’d say, “This is an equation, right? So what is the first thing you have to do?” They’d answer, “Isolate a variable.” And I’d keep asking, “And what comes next?” That concept is called scaffolding and goes along with the zone of proximal development.

The zone of proximal development?

Bob: The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky talked about the zone of proximal development, which is the difference between things we can and cannot do on our own. The middle ground is things we can do with support. We’re trying to lend a scaffolding, to give kids the help they need at different ages and stages, so they can experience a psalm more deeply.

Are you writing a children’s Sunday school curriculum about psalms?

Bob: We wondered how to get kids to access a fairly adult piece of scripture in a format that will get used. We didn’t want to do lessons because most Sunday school teachers already have curriculum they’re using.

Laura: I work with children’s ministry people a lot. This working with Psalms idea is not on their radar.

Bob: Instead, we decided to write devotionals that families can use at meals or bedtime. We imagine a family with elementary to teenaged kids and a parent or parents. So far we have 20 devotionals on five psalms, including Psalm 13, which is a short lament.

How would you apply your approach to Psalm 13?

Bob: We simplify the idea of lament to being sad. The first devotional talks about when you feel sad, which children at age four can understand. The next is about feeling sad for someone else, because an eight-year-old can feel sad for a friend. By age 14, you can feel sad for someone in a less personal way, like thinking of how someone in Iraq might feel. The final devotional explains that a third of the Psalms are lament. The people of Israel were sad and tired sometimes, and they told God about it.

Laura: We include notes to parents with each set of devotionals. We suggest they read all four devotionals that are based on the same psalm. Maybe a family would like to memorize a psalm together. Psalm 13 would be a good one to consider because I don’t think anyone ever memorizes a lament.

How can parents use the Psalms to form faith over the long haul?

Bob: Have reasonable expectations. They’re kids and these are adult psalms. We’re looking to plant seeds. If they get one verse, that’s okay.

Laura: If you keep repeating psalms from age five to 10, you build up a cumulative base of knowledge and integrate them into your life. When these words are literally on your lips, they shape your prayers and how your family talks together.  

Bob: This is a lifelong process. We hope they’ll get the words of the Psalms in their hearts—and know them well enough to not only quote a psalm but improvise on it. It would be great if, instead of being 62 years old when they figure out the Psalms, they’re age 32.


Looking for relevant resources? The Keeleys recommend “Praying the Psalms with Kids,” Kristen Verhulst’s article from Reformed Worship.